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Beyond Words 2019: Award-Nominated Screenwriters Talk Breaking In and Breaking Story

March 6, 2019
Photo credit: Michael L. Jones

This year’s Beyond Words panel hosted by the Writers Guild Foundation, the Writers Guild of America West and Variety, was moderated by Stacey Wilson Hunt and featured an exceptional array of the WGA-nominated screenwriters, including: Bryan Woods and Scott Beck (A Quiet Place), Bo Burnham (Eighth Grade), Joe Robert Cole (Black Panther), Brian Currie and Peter Farrelly (Green Book), Lauren Greenfield (Generation Wealth), Nicole Holofcener (Can You Ever Forgive Me?), Ozzy Inguanzo and Dava Whisenant (Bathtubs Over Broadway), Gabe Polsky (In Search of Greatness), Eric Roth (A Star Is Born) and Kevin Willmott (BlacKkKlansman).

Several of these award-nominated writers shared their best advice for writers looking to break in.

LAUREN GREENFIELD (Generation Wealth)

Follow your heart. It’s that passion project, that kind of personal project that you’ll do anything to get made, even when it seems completely irrational — that’s the thing that never changes in what we do. I made three other films before Generation Wealth, but it doesn’t make it any easier. It was still this kind of crazy, completely irrational mountain to climb. But I think you just have to keep telling yourself that there’s a reason that you’re doing it, even when it seems crazy.

OZZY INGUANZO (Bathtubs Over Broadway)

Keep going, because you need so much persistence. Have a good team of cheerleaders and people around you as well who support you and can nurture you. It’s sometimes a lonely journey and very tiring, so that’s important.

DAVA WHISENANT (Bathtubs Over Broadway)

Find a mentor. Find someone whose work you love and try to talk to them. I think mentorship is really important.

GABE POLSKY (In Search of Greatness)

You just have to worry about doing the best you can do and get a lot of feedback on your work; honest feedback so you can improve. Read a lot to understand exactly where you are and your skill level is at. It becomes self-evident if you’re getting feedback and you’re reading other people’s work.

ERIC ROTH (A Star Is Born)

Just keep writing. First: finish what you start. Most people don’t. Also, don’t compare yourself to anybody else. Everybody is unique. I think you have to find people you can talk to and then it’s luck. A lot of luck.

KEVIN WILLMOTT (BlacKkKlansman)

You know how everybody says write what you know, somebody told me write what you believe, too. That’s kind of been what I try to do. Write what I believe in, what I care about. Write what you are really passionate about.

SCOTT BECK (A Quiet Place)

Being a self-starter is one of the most important things. You can’t sit around and wait for it to happen. So for us, it was very much about just committing ourselves to the craft. That meant working on a script and as soon as that was done, putting our eyes forward to the next script, because we knew every time out, hopefully we would get a little better and a little better.

BRYAN WOODS (A Quiet Place)

Realize that you are going to fail all the time. The business is just pure failure. We feel like we’ve been just failing upwards. We wrote probably thirty scripts before we ever really became professional screenwriters. It took a long time. Be willing to just fall on your face as many times as possible and grow in the process. 

BO BURNHAM (Eighth Grade)

Write. Just actually do it, especially for young people, people on the internet. They’re told to learn to self-market and self-promote before they learn to actually do the thing. I really do think that good, quality work is the best promotion. It will promote itself. So for young people trying to get into creative stuff, don’t put the cart before the horse. Learn how to do something before you learn how to sell it.

What do you wish you could have told your younger self about navigating the business as a writer?

BO BURNHAM (Eighth Grade)

The actual part of being a writer — which took me a long time to realize — is the best part of being a writer and is actually available to everybody right away: the writing! If that isn’t the best part for you, stop right now.

PETER FARRELLY (Green Book)

Agent or no agent, you have to make it happen yourself. You have to hustle. Find out what’s going on in town and make your own thing happen. You think if you get an agent, it’s all set. No, you have to work for your agent. A great writing sample is the best way in the door. If you have a great script that they can pass around, that will open a lot of doors. You just have to do it.

Under what conditions do you do your best writing?

ERIC ROTH (A Star Is Born)

I’m very programmed. I start at eight. Creatively, I’m done by about noon. I work at home in a little office.

DAVA WHISENANT (Bathtubs Over Broadway)

I need a hot beverage. I don’t know why, but I can’t work without a hot beverage.

BRIAN CURRIE (Green Book)

I can’t work outside the house in a coffee shop. I’m totally in silence [when I write]. I actually need a wall in front of me. No distractions. Just me and the computer — and a lot of coffee.

What’s your approach to crafting the narrative of your stories?

PETER FARRELLY (Green Book)

I find the story as I go. I usually try to find the first act, and who the characters are and what they are. Then I kind of let it go. I don’t want to know where it’s going. I don’t like doing the cards, because you’re locked in. I want to be able to go where the story wants to take me.

LAUREN GREENFIELD (Generation Wealth)

I started by writing the photography book, which was a 500-page book. When I wrote the introduction to the book, which I did at the end of the process, I found my voice that ended up becoming the movie. It was kind of the pathway through all of this material. I really wanted to make sense of what it all added up to and how we got here; in a way, using my experience, the pictures and the interviews as a kind of archeological evidence of this cultural shift.

NICOLE HOLOFCENER (Can You Ever Forgive Me?)

It wasn’t a hard memoir to adapt. It had a great story. A beginning, a middle and an end. I made up some stuff along the way and also had to take a lot out. It’s an adaptation, and for me, no offense to adaptors, but I find it much easier to adapt a book than coming up with my own stuff. That’s much scarier.

SCOTT BECK (A Quiet Place)

We’ve written scripts where it was just about the horror — and that is never enough. You have to have an emotional arc or it’s going to fall on its face. It’s boiling it down and making it very personal and pouring yourself out on the page. For us, even though you look at A Quiet Place and think it’s very much a monster movie that you go to on a Friday night, there’s still a lot in there. Issues that we’ve had with family members, where you don’t necessarily say what you mean to say the entire time, and you just need to raise your voice and say it.

The Beyond Words panel was held on February 7th in Beverly Hills at the Writers Guild Theater.

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